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The Florida Times-Union
Let Freedom Ring
August 1, 2000
The United Nations Decolonization Committee had the right idea when it passed a resolution reaffirming "the inalienable rights of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination and independence."
Now the committee needs to plead its case to the people of Puerto Rico, who periodically are offered independence by the U.S. government and always turn it down overwhelmingly.
Polls show only 5 percent of the people there want independence. The others are about equally divided between advocates of statehood and those favoring continuation of its semi-autonomous commonwealth status.
The status quo is wrong because the United States has no valid claim to Puerto Rico -- which was seized a century ago, during the colonial era, as a "spoil" of the Spanish-American War. The Philippines, taken during the same conflict, was given back to the Filipinos five decades ago.
Under commonwealth status, Puerto Ricans are treated differently than other U.S. citizens in some respects. They get a break in aid and taxes, for example, but cannot vote for federal offices.
That causes legal problems. A federal judge recently ruled it unconsti- tutional to deny Puerto Ricans the right to vote for president. Another said the federal death penalty cannot be enforced there because of the suffrage issue.
Congress and the courts cannot "fine tune" an inequitable system sufficiently to make it equitable. Puerto Ricans should be treated exactly like other Americans, no better and no worse, or they should be free from U.S. authority.
Puerto Rico is a small, overpopulated island with few natural resources. Doubters say, it cannot survive economically without ties to the United States. But Singapore, Ireland and South Korea are small, independent nations with few resources. They are prosperous.
Puerto Rico also could do well, provided it chooses to embrace economic freedom and elects non-corrupt leaders who pursue membership in free trade alliances.
The United States sends economic aid to many countries, and there is no reason it couldn't help Puerto Rico -- at least for several years during the transition to independence. One proposal is to promise a series of block grants, equal to current funding, for 10 years.
An argument also is made that Puerto Rico would be too weak militarily to fight off aggressive neighbors. But the same argument was made about the Philippines, and it hasn't been attacked.
Besides, the United States has defense pacts with many countries; it could add Puerto Rico to the long list.
Puerto Rican nationalism is on the rise, as evidenced by the effort to expel the U.S. Navy from the Vieques bombing range. Now is the time to do what should have been decades.
In Puerto Rico , where unemployment is 20 percent, it's understandable that people are reluctant to cut the security of U.S. ties. But no country really prospers while under foreign rule.
Many in the Philippines were leery of independence 50 years ago, but few would give it up today. There must be a reason.